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The morning Kim Ambers turned 50, her oldest son, Richard Ambers, called to wish her a happy birthday. I love you, he told her.

It was a tradition for the Ambers family members to see one another on birthdays, but Kim Ambers’ celebration would have to wait. Richard was working and had a Halloween party afterward. The whole family would go out for breakfast the next day, on Oct. 29, 2016.

There was another call that morning.

“Mom, come over,” said Richard’s wife.

Kim Ambers rushed to her 31-year-old son’s north Minneapolis home, where two police officers told her he had been shot twice in the head at about 5 a.m. She later learned he had spent the evening and morning selling marijuana.

“I was very hurt and destroyed,” Ambers said. “I was unaware people died [selling] marijuana. Coming to that reality was rough.”

Richard Ambers’ murder wasn’t an aberration. While no local or state agencies track homicides linked to drug transactions, longtime investigators say Minnesotans are more likely to die during a marijuana transaction than sales involving harder drugs.

“The violence is there with other drugs, but we don’t see the homicides associated with other narcotics as we do with marijuana,” said Anoka County Sheriff’s Lt. Wayne Heath, commander of the Anoka-Hennepin Narcotics and Violent Crimes Task Force. “No one knows why in marijuana it leads to that extra step.”

At least seven Minnesotans died last year during marijuana transactions. Among them was 17-year-old Tristan Robinson, an alleged drug dealer who was dragged underneath a car in Anoka on Nov. 10 after three teens short on cash allegedly robbed him during a $100 sale. In St. Paul, alleged marijuana dealers Brock Cecil Larson, 36, and Da’Seion Pugh, 19, were killed within a month of each other.

In the past 12 years, the Star Tribune has published stories about 35 homicides that occurred during marijuana transactions. In the same period, it published stories about 11 homicides that occurred during transactions for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and all other harder drugs combined.

“Shocked but not surprised, that’s kind of my take on it,” said Cmdr. Paul Sommer of the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated two such cases in 2017.

There aren’t a lot of concrete answers as to why marijuana transactions are deadlier, but there are theories. Marijuana dealers are easy targets for people more interested in getting cash than getting high, said some investigators.

“People who are addicted to heroin need it more than anything else,” said Cmdr. Ken Sass, who heads the St. Paul Police Department’s narcotics unit. “They’re not going to rob the person who brings them their medicine every day.”

‘Loving and caring spirit’

Richard Ambers, 31, grew up in north Minneapolis, the oldest of three children. Kim Ambers said he had a strong interest in African-American history and doted on his two daughters and son, attending school field trips and braiding and beading the girls’ hair.

A memory from his childhood stands out vividly for Kim Ambers: She was cleaning fish when Richard was about 6. His eyes darted to his pet fish in an aquarium nearby.

“We’re going to eat those fish, mom?” he cried.

“I was like, ‘We eat cows and pigs and chickens,’ ” Kim Ambers recalled.

Richard Ambers stopped eating meat for two years starting that day.

“He didn’t think it was right to eat animals,” his mother said. “He was a loving and caring spirit.”

When he told his mother he was selling marijuana, she protested. She hadn’t raised him like that. She had pushed him to earn his high school diploma instead of opting for a general equivalency diploma. He wasn’t struggling to get by.

He had been convicted of misdemeanor drug possession in 2007 but stayed out of trouble until a gun possession conviction in 2015. He was spared jail time in that case.

He insisted he was safe.

“He tried to convince me that he’s not selling to anyone he didn’t know,” Kim Ambers said. “Just family and friends.”

She had always supported him. She would try to bear this somehow.

But Richard Ambers wasn’t selling to just family and friends. That October morning he met four strangers who set him up to die. Three of those suspects fatally shot a second man — 42-year-old James Herron — in the arm, leg and head a month later during another marijuana deal.

Marijuana has steadily gained social acceptance — a Pew Research Center survey released in January showed that 61 percent of Americans support legalizing the drug, and its recreational use is now legal in eight states.

Sommer, a former narcotics investigator who also served as commander of the Anoka-Hennepin Narcotics and Violent Crimes Task Force from 2002 to 2008, said many marijuana dealers underestimate its dangers.

“In the cases we’ve seen, they’re really low-level type dealers,” Sommer said. “They’re young and they’re inexperienced. They also have a glamorized persona of what a drug dealer is, and they react kind of foolishly based on their inexperience.”

Investigators said marijuana dealers are vulnerable because they frequently sell to casual acquaintances or strangers. Meanwhile, dealers selling harder drugs generally cultivate repeat customers who develop a businesslike relationship with their supplier.

“That’s an easy mark,” Kent Bailey, head of the Minneapolis Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) office, said of a casual marijuana dealer. “The street-level cocaine and street-level heroin dealers are going to be so leery of their customers.”

Marcus Harcus, executive director of Minnesota Campaign for Full Legalization, said reform of marijuana laws could cut down on the violence. Harcus formerly led Minnesota’s branch of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

“It doesn’t surprise me, because it’s an illicit market,” Harcus said of the killings. “If there are this many people getting killed in these transactions, it’s an argument for legalization. No one is getting killed in dispensaries.”

Ray Padilla, a licensed police officer and president of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association, said potential marijuana dealers have a mistaken view of the trade.

“People see [dealing] as easy money, but it isn’t,” Padilla said. “People are being killed.”

Since her son’s death, Kim Ambers has been consumed by the cases against the defendants: Derrick Z. Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Ayan Wahab and Brandy Jaques pleaded guilty to aiding an offender. The case against Tyrel Patterson is pending.

On a recent afternoon, she scraped away snow to locate her son’s grave marker at Crystal Lake Cemetery, breaking down in tears when it wasn’t immediately found.

“Some would say that because he was doing something wrong, he deserved it,” she said. “I would say no one deserves to be murdered no matter what they’re doing. No one deserves to die violently like that.”

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib